Facebook, Twitter try to limit U.S. regulation at hearing

Senior executives of Facebook and Twitter faced a Congressional committee Wednesday morning trying to limit the amount of regulation the U.S. government might impose on social media companies in the wake of increasing evidence that foreign organizations are using them for disinformation campaigns there and in other countries.

“Actions taken show how determined we are to do everything we can do to stop this from happening,” said Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

She noted the company has more than doubled the number of people working in its safety and security divisions to 20,000, reviewing reports in 50 languages. With the use of machine learning Facebook is more proactive in finding abuse, she said. In the first three months of this year over 85 per cent of violent content was either taken down or added warning labels before they were reported.

“We are now blocking millions of attempts to register false accounts each and every day,” she added.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg testifying before U.S. Congress.

As for fake news, Sandberg said Facebook is getting rid of the “economic incentives”, and limits the distribution of fake news through fact-checking, demoting the rankings of those determined as false. Warnings are sent to people who share what is determined to be fake news, and show them related articles to give them more facts.

The platform also shows who paid for political and issue-related ads.

Coming soon will be a requirement for those running what she called large pages for large audiences in the U.S. to go through an authorization process to confirm their identity.

“These steps won’t stop everyone from trying to game the system,” she said, “but it will make it a lot harder.”

Facebook’s efforts are not only centered on the U.S. Recently the platform took down 58 pages and accounts from Myanmar, Sandberg said, many of which were posing as news organizations.

The depth of Congress’ feeling, though, may be indicated by Senator Ron Wyden, who suggested that consumer privacy is a “national security issue.”

Social media companies hold a lot of data on subscribers, he noted. “The prospect of that data being shared with shady businesses, hackers and foreign governments is a massive privacy and national security concern … My view is personal data is now the weapon of choice for political influence campaigns, and we must not make it easier for our adversaries to seize these weapons.”

“From this point on beefing up protection and control on personal privacy must be a national security priority,” he said. Sandberg and Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey both agreed.

Dorsey testified that his company identifies and challenges eight to 10 million fake accounts per week, has made progress in transparency of who buys ads and how they are targeted and challenging suspicious logins. He admitted the company was unprepared for the abuse of the platform during the 2016 U.S. election.

“We acknowledge the real-world negative consequences of what happened, and we take the full responsibility to fix it. We can’t do this alone, and that’s why this conversation (with Congress) is important,” he said. “If we don’t find scalable solutions to the problems we are not seeing we lose our business.”

Dorsey also said that Twitter is working on alerting subscribers when they are dealing with an automated bot and not a human, although he admitted it isn’t easy.

In the opening hour of today’s session before the Senate intelligence committee, none of the senators make specific recommendations for legislation. Committee chair Senator Richard Burr — who criticized Google for not sending senior executives as requested — said whatever the solution, “we’ve got to do this collaboratively, and we’ve got to do it now.”

But the senators are worried. “I’m afraid we’re on the cusp of a new generation of exploitation potentially harnessing hacked personal information to enable tailored and targeted disinformation in social engineering efforts,” said committee co-chair Mark Warner.

“The size and reach of your platforms demands that we as policy makers do our job to ensure proper oversight and transparency and protection of our American users and democratic institutions.”

(Correction: The original version of this story wrongly said Sandberg said her company is working on a way of alterting users if they are dealing with a bot rather than a human. The story should have said Dorsey made that statement.)

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of ITWorldCanada.com and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including ITBusiness.ca and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@] soloreporter.com

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